Miscellany: George W. and the Grand Canyon

George W. and the Grand Canyon

Amidst the page after page and hour after hour analysis of what George W.’s re-election might mean, one small fact stands out.

According to Joan Didion in an essay in the New York Review of Books, the Bush Administration has decided that as well as “faith-based” welfare the US needs “faith-based” national parks. The US Parks Service has been ordered to stock a publication called Grand Canyon: A different view at the Grand Canyon bookshops. Now the interesting thing about this publication is that it refutes the idea that the Grand Canyon was formed over tens of thousands of years of geological activity. Instead, it all happened in six days as part of creation. We can now expect other national parks to follow suit.

But more importantly, it reminds us how unusual Bush as a President is. He’s not unusual because he’s a “war” president. After all there have been very few US Presidents who were not Commanders-in-Chief in a war with someone or other during their terms. Rather it is the religiosity which is distinctive. As a general rule the Founding Fathers were creatures of the Enlightenment: rationalists, deists, Unitarians and so on. Other than the fact that most of them were slave owners their most striking similarity lay in their respect for skepticism and tolerance.

George W. Bush is from a different heritage – with different consequences.

The South

Speaking of similarities – what do most of the southern States which delivered the bulk of the electoral votes to Bush have in common? Answer: they spend more on prisons than they do on education. Admittedly at one stage the UK Government spent more on milk support schemes than on tertiary education but the prison/education dichotomy is still striking.

More US election ironies

As the US opted categorically for a believer in hard power it was a curious irony that, according to The Economist, the German Government is displaying a deft touch for soft power.

The Germans have opened a branch of the wonderful Goethe Institute in Pyongyang. It offers a range of books, CDs, videos, newspapers and magazines to North Koreans.

Now the Germans were not renowned for their touch with soft power during the 20th century even though German culture had been so influential throughout the West during the 19th century.

The contrast between their approach to North Korea and that of the US highlights another or those ironic historic reversals. 50 years ago most of the educated European elites were strongly pro-American. Anti-Americanism tended to be working class in origin. The sustained campaign by British trade unions to prohibit the importation of US comics in the 1950s was an example of this. Today – rather than resisting US junk culture – the masses adore it and the distaste is more pronounced among the elites.

But then, why try to persuade or inspire people when it’s so much easier to bomb them?

Lies, political campaigns and post-modernism

An old friend wrote me a long letter from New York, where he now lives, about the US and Australian election campaigns. He still writes letters, which is a very civil thing to do in today’s electronic environment.

Although his civility is currently probably being tested in a long, sad bar crawl through Manhattan’s Lower East side he is also very civilized and always has an apposite quote in his letters. This time, reflecting on lies and campaigns, he offered up two. The first was from Graham Greene about a character that “entered the territory of lies without a passport of return.”

The second was from Hannah Arendt: “The trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In that sense, Truth, even if it does not prevail in public possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods”.

It reminded me just how much the post-modernists and the right wing commentators have, although ostensibly fighting each other to the death in the interests of civilization as they know it, ended up resembling each other so much. Both dispute the notion of truth with a capital T and end up taking relativistic views of what constitutes reality and what constitutes lies.

All, indeed, rather like Animal Farm.


And speaking of George Orwell an acquaintance chided me for committing a sin against which Orwell warned, by describing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s killing as an execution. The point may be legally moot but it does raise some of those interminable but important questions about language and politics.

The best discussion of the issues is still George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language. D.J. Enright’s Fair of Speech was also a great description of euphemism in more every-day settings. Then we have the BBC descriptions of Israeli attacks on Hamas militants as “executions” and Palestinian suicide-bombers as “murders”; the old quote about one person’s terrorist being another person’s freedom fighter and so on and so on.

Now Don Watson has followed up his Death Sentence with Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words. Death Sentence was a wonderful diatribe which sadly depicted, far too accurately, the way language undermines thinking in business, education and politics. Equally sadly it had few remedies. His latest work is described as “an essential reference for victims and saboteurs” and includes echoes of Menken and Ambrose Bierce.

Reviewing Watson’s Keating book I was struck by how it transcended genres. Part polemic, part memoir, part political anthropology, part biography it will come to rank with the great 20th century political biographies: Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King; Lord Blake on Disraeli; and Jean Lacouture on de Gaulle. But the two more recent Watson books – which are nevertheless great books which everybody should read – perhaps spend too much time on the problem and too little on the solutions.

It’s desperately unfair to compare any writer with Orwell but perhaps we need a latter-day version of the rules for good writing Orwell laid down in his essay.

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word when a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut out a word always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive voice when you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon if you can find an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.

But then, on reflection, perhaps we don’t need new solutions – Orwell anticipated them all.

We were (actually “I was”) wrong

In the last Miscellany I mentioned that the figures on Iraqi civilian deaths were to be published in Nature. Wrong – it was in The Lancet. Minor point, but then it is on such lesser points – rather than substance – that the vitriolic right historical revisionists set out to counter opponents.